Max Stern rebuilt his life in Canada after anti-Semitic persecution forced him to leave his native Germany. Karsh
International outrage has erupted over the abrupt termination by the mayor of Dusseldorf, Germany, of a museum exhibition called Max Stern: From Dusseldorf to Montreal, about the famed Jewish art dealer Max Stern and the restitution of paintings that the Nazi Gestapo forced him to sell in 1937.
The premise of the show, which was set to open in February at the city-owned Dusseldorf Stadtmuseum, was to teach the story of Stern, who rebuilt his life in Canada after anti-Semitic persecution forced him to leave his native Germany, and how his heirs created the Montreal-based Max Stern Art Restitution Project, now one of the world's most significant initiatives addressing Holocaust-era cultural theft.
Under Mayor Thomas Geisel, the city issued a statement explaining its reason for pulling the plug on the landmark show as "restitution claims in connection to Max Stern" – whose stolen art still hangs on public gallery walls in Dusseldorf. But it neglected to mention the city's ties to the Berlin-based lawyer Ludwig von Pufendorf, one of Germany's most outspoken and vehement critics of Nazi-era art restitution. The cancellation of the Stadtmuseum show is particularly questionable as it comes at the same time that, in nearby Bonn, the Bundeskunsthalle museum opened an exhibition on the Nazi-tainted hoard of Cornelius Gurlitt, to raise awareness of Second World War crimes committed by the country. Collectively, the situation underlines the challenging nature of art restitution and Germany's divided and inconsistent handling of the matter.
"Ownership claims should be a goal and incentive, not a hindrance, to this important exhibition," Tel Aviv University professor emerita Hanna Scolnicov says. "Human lives cannot be returned, but art works can and should." In a letter to the mayor, Georgetown University professor Ori Z. Soltes wrote that where a respected German museum had the opportunity to "heal wounds that remain open more than seven decades after they were inflicted," it instead "unilaterally cancelled the project" to protect illegitimate holdings. Contacted for his comments about the cancellation, Geisel has not responded.
In development for three years, Max Stern: From Dusseldorf to Montreal was to open at the Stadtmuseum before travelling to the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel and then to Montreal's McCord Museum. All components of the show had been completed when, earlier this month (only days before the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the wave of anti-Semitic violence throughout Germany in November, 1938), Dr. Susanne Anna, its curator and the Stadtmuseum's director, received written notice from the city of the cancellation.
"This sort of behaviour is highly unusual in the museum world," says Suzanne Sauvage, McCord's president and chief executive officer. "Loan agreements for works of art had been negotiated and signed, support activities had been planned, funds had been raised. All was set to go." (The exhibition will not take place in Montreal or Haifa because it was dependent on holdings of the Stadtmuseum and the work of its curators, who initiated it.)
Named for the renowned Montreal art dealer who played a key role in the careers of Canadian painters including Emily Carr and Paul-Émile Borduas, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project was founded in 2002 after Stern's heirs – McGill University, Concordia University and Israel's Hebrew University – learned that before Stern's arrival in Quebec, Third Reich legislation brought an end to his esteemed Rhine Valley art dealership, the Galerie Stern in Dusseldorf.
When Nazi law deemed Stern incapable of promoting German culture because he was Jewish, he involuntarily liquidated the inventory of his family's art business, in sale No. 392 at Cologne's Third Reich-approved auction house Lempertz (still open for business today), infamous for trafficking "non-Aryan property" to Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's deputy and most avaricious looter. The Max Stern Art Restitution Project was established to reclaim the works lost at that 1937 auction.
Despite successfully reinventing himself in Canada, where he ultimately received the Order of Canada for promoting living Canadian artists at his Dominion Gallery in Montreal, Stern, who died in 1987, never discussed the losses he incurred in Nazi Europe.
It was to break this silence that his executors created the Max Stern Art Restitution Project (to date, 16 works have been restituted). It is a not-for-profit organization that has no time limit, nor monetary incentives when reclaiming art other than to further the understanding of restitution.
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"It is the only operation of its kind in the world," explains its director, Dr. Clarence Epstein of Concordia. "Because we recover art that ranges in value, including pieces worth little on today's market, our work counters a notion often fed by media that money rather than moral rectitude is at the heart of Holocaust-era art restitution."
The Dusseldorf Stadtmuseum announced its plans for an exhibition about Max Stern in April, 2014, at a restitution ceremony in the gallery, where it returned to the Stern estate the painting Self-Portrait of the Artist by the 19th-century Romantic artist Wilhelm von Schadow. Five years earlier, in 2009, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project had discovered the work in the inventory of the museum. The painting had been listed as one of the items in the 1937 catalogue for the forced auction at Lempertz.
At the ceremony at the Stadtmuseum where the painting was returned to Stern's estate, Susanne Anna announced that under her direction the museum would organize an exhibition to acknowledge the Galerie Stern's importance to the city of Dusseldorf, because the Third Reich had erased its history, as well as the stories of the city's other Jewish art dealers. She explained the show was necessary as a reminder that "art was only one thing stolen by the Nazis. They took everything – rugs, bicycles, cars, carpets, candlesticks and books – turning Germany into a garage sale of Jewish goods to finance the war."
What Anna left out of her speech, however, was the highly arduous process that the Stern heirs had faced in reclaiming Self-Portrait of the Artist, one that took five years in a city known for its conservative values.
"It was complicated," Epstein says, "because Germany has no set laws outlining how to deal with claims." Moreover, the country's civil code states that property cannot be reclaimed more than 30 years after it was lost or stolen. Thus, the door to restituting works through German courts was shut in 1975. While Germany is among 44 countries that voluntarily signed the Washington Principles of 1998, committing itself to the restitution of art stolen by the Nazis or sold under duress, the pact is legally non-binding.
Although Anna was sympathetic to seeing the painting's return, "the matter was not one for her to decide," Epstein says, "because the work was municipal property." In 2010, to fight the Stern estate's claim for Self-Portrait of the Artist, Dusseldorf city council hired lawyer Ludwig von Pufendorf, who had recently become one of Germany's most outspoken critics of art restitution after the Berlin state senate released Berlin Street Scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner from Berlin's Bruecke Museum in 2006. The restitution of the painting, which had been the centrepiece of the museum's collection for 26 years, ignited controversy across the European art world.
Anita Halpin, a granddaughter of the Jewish-German art collectors Alfred and Tekla Hess, claimed Kirchner's expressionist masterpiece after a lengthy process in which her legal representatives presented evidence that under anti-Semitic persecution, two Gestapo agents forced her grandmother to part with the painting in 1936. Disputing Halpin's claim that Berlin Street Scene was sold under Nazi duress, von Pufendorf, then president of the Bruecke Museum's patrons' association, publicly railed against the decision and called for a parliamentary inquiry into whether the restitution contract was binding.
The uproar escalated and spread when in the fall of 2006, Halpin sold the painting at Christie's New York for $38.1-million (U.S.). Bernd Schultz, then director of the Berlin auction house Villa Grisebach, called the Kirchner return a "betrayal of the German nation." In London, Royal Academy director Sir Norman Rosenthal argued that museums should not be forced to restitute Nazi-looted artwork and that it was a practice that makes the rich richer. Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones wrote that restituting "paintings from the cities where they have the deepest relevance is meaningless and contrary to the public good."
Max Stern in Germany, 1925. National Gallery of Canada Archives/Fonds Max Stern